Carrying on where the previous album left off “Play It Dirty, Play It Class” is another cracking album of smouldering jazzy, soul filled, and even at times country tinged blues rock. The majority of the songs this time around though are originals written by various members of the band. There is just the one cover Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong’s ‘Can’t Get Next To You’
The effect of months of continual gigging supporting the likes of Roxy Music as well as headlining constantly on the college and club circuit is evident from the opening notes. As good a vocalist as Jess Roden is it is clear that this is no solo album with a backing band. This is a proper band and the musicians are given the time and space to shine. Something that was more than re-itterated on the live album that followed this release. The horn section in particular shines on the fast paced feel good opener ‘US Dream’. The Roden penned ‘Stay In Bed’ takes the mood right down and is a slow sleazy jazzy blues with a nice lazy shuffling drum that drives it along nicely before a simple but effective solo punctuates Roden’s smoky vocal. The cover of ‘Can’t Get Next To You’ follows and I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it is undoubtedly the best version of the track I have heard. The backing vocals are absolutely tremendous and compliment Roden’s lead perfectly. Unless my album cover is missing some info these were handled by the band as well, and not by a specialist backing group. Something that makes them even more incredible. Roden is clearly enjoying the space the band gives him to extend notes and phrasing and the whole effect is one of complete tightness but also with freedom of expression and improvisation at the same time. Not an easy thing to achieve. The musical passage that leads into the end of the song is superb as is Roden’s ending to the track. All in all it is seven minutes of pure audible joy. ‘Dirty Bars’ is almost a country rock blues track. Simple but effective. Roden and the band taking the change in style from the jazz and soul of the previous track to the country rock and cowboy blues completely in their strides.
It is back to a more laid back jazzy feel for the start of the second half of the album with ‘Me and Crystal Eye’. Once again the horn section takes the solo and transports you straight into a smoky jazz and blues club. ‘Stone Chaser’ ups the tempo again a little with its introduction before Roden comes in and the track morphs into an almost jazz cabaret track. It is a little too polished for me and despite the nice melody lacks the grit and feeling of the other tracks. In simple terms it is probably ‘too nice’ and because of this is the low point on the album. ‘The Ballad of Big Sally’ meanwhile, as you can probably tell by the title, sees a return to the grinding dirty jazzy blues of ‘You Can Leave Your Hat On’. More great musical interplay compliments another faultless Roden vocal. Album closer ‘All Night Long’ starts as a straight up rock song with the added bonus of a brass section but within a minute has turned into “The Commitments” ….. just ten years earlier. Makes you wonder if this is where they got the idea from !
“Play It Dirty, Play It Class” is for me Jess Roden’s most consistent studio album and displays his incredible adaptabilty between styles. His vocal delivery moving easily between jazz, soul, blues, country, and rock. Much has been made of the phrasing ability of Paul Rodgers but I would suggest that Roden, along with Frankie Miller, is almost Rodgers’ equal. Like Rodgers and Miller, Roden is very much a singer and musicians singer. Mention the name Jess Roden to a singer or musician of a certain age and you will almost certainly be given an appreciative nod followed by a wistful shake of the head and a comment along the lines of ” …. why isn’t that man a superstar.”